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Pol Roger update, including Winston Churchill 2002

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

I visited Pol Roger once again on a very warm day earlier this summer. The old house and offices were in the middle of a very major reordering. Despite the thumps, crashes, heat and copious quantities of dust Sylviane Lemaire very generously took time to show me and my guests the latest releases, including the keenly-anticipated Winston Churchill 2002. Here are my notes on the three wines I hadn’t previously tasted.
Rosé 2006
The nose blends fresh brioche notes with savoury red fruit, especially raspberry, but even rhubarb. Dry, with creamy acid, the ripe red fruit favours opens in the mouth and taper to a long finish.
Blanc de Blancs 2004
A deliciously enticing nose of white peach and brioche-like autolytic notes. Fine complexity. A backbone of firm, tight acidity underpins, fresh grapefruit-like flavours – quite a sturdy structure in a Blanc de Blancs. Long and fine.
Winston Churchill 2002
A glorious pale gold colour (the blend is dominated by Pinot Noir). The nose is immensely rich and powerful, with hazelnut and butter, balanced by fresh but concentrated citrus aromas, especially grapefruit, but also white peach. Very complex. In the mouth, a firm structure, with very fresh acidity becomes buttery in mid palate before easing into a long dry finish. A wine of finesse and power, and as another taster pointed out, ‘sensational restraint.’

The miraculous 2012 vintage – the evidence of the vins clairs at Bollinger, Louis Roederer and Pol Roger

Friday, April 19th, 2013

The second part of the Institute of Masters of Wine 2012 Champagne Trinity Scholarship  enabled me to return to Champagne to the three family-owned houses of Pol Roger, Louis Roederer and Bollinger to taste the vins clairs – still wines from the 2012 harvest. I failed to dodged unseasonable snowstorms, gained an unwelcome, intimate knowledge of CDG’s terminal 2E during 48 hours of cancelled flights, and once again, experienced fabulous hospitality in Champagne.


A tanker load of freshly pressed juice arrives at Pol Roger's winery in Epernay


After an orientation session with Violaine de Caffarelli of the CIVC (the main trade body of the region, which represents both the growers and the powerful Champagne houses), whose notes form the background to my summary of the growing season, my first tasting of vins clairs was at Bollinger. At Louis Roederer Grégoire Fauconnet treated me to a quite remarkable selection of wines from parcels destined for Cristal. I then spent a fascinating morning at Pol Roger in the genial company of Hubert de Billy.  Hubert de Billy of Pol Roger

Hubert de Billy of Pol Roger

The opportunity to taste the vins clairs from what seems likely to be regarded as a truly great vintage was a special privilege, but even more than this, I learned a great deal about the effects of different viticultural regimes and cellar practices on the quality and style of the wines. I shall focus on this later, but first, a little bit of background.

An unlikely success story

2012 was a nightmare of a growing season. The temperature from March to September was average. Rainfall was a little high – 67mm above average, but little else conformed to recent norms, except the sheer unpredictability of the weather from one month to the next.  After bud-break, growers faced a damaging series of frosts.  There were five damaging frosts in late April and early May, the last on 10 May. The temperature fell to -7.7C.131 communes were affected, 13,500 ha. of vines suffered, and the crop from 2,900 ha. was wiped out.  The Aube was hit worst. Further damage was caused by a succession of violent early summer storms. Flowering began on 16 June and was poor, leading to both millerandage and coulure.

A long period of changeable warm, wet weather meant that mildew was rife and oïdium followed. Organic and biodynamic growers found that as soon as had they sprayed their vines with copper it was immediately washed off again. Roederer’s team, for example, had to spray their Marne Valley vineyards with copper sixteen times. But then July turned more settled and the very warm weather continued through August, with temperatures that peaked over 34C. The grapes ripened but shrivelled. The small crop that remained was healthy and even benefitted from mid September rains at harvest time, which swelled the grapes by up to 15%. Although phenolic ripeness of some Chardonnays sometimes lagged behind the development of flavours in the grapes, the quality of the crop was greeted by immediate and almost universal acclaim.

Harvest for Pinot Noir began on 14 September, Meunier on 16 September and Chardonnay two days later. The average yield was, of course, down at 9,200 kg/ha, a loss of around 40%. The CIVC estimates that 10% of losses was down to hail or frost, 10% down to disease, especially mildew and oïdium and 20% was down to flowering problems.

Prices rose again. Depending on the courtier, a kilo of grapes fetched between €5.2 and €6.1.

The raw figures suggest that growers’ initial optimism was founded on much more than a feeling of sheer relief at having any kind of healthy crop to harvest. The average potential alcohol for all three main varieties was 10.5% abv. Few winemakers were tempted or needed to chaptalise their musts. Acid levels were very respectable: Pinot Noir was 7.9g/l (H2SO4, according to CIVC’s figures – this way of expressing total or titratable acidity gives lower figure than the more usual UK measure of g/l measured as tartaric acid), Meunier, unusually, was a little higher at 8.2 g/l and Chardonnay averaged 7.7 g/l.

The truth in the glass – the vins clairs

A Pinot Year

It was immediately clear from the very first batch of vins clairs that I tasted at the CIVC from grapes grown at their Plumecoq research vineyard that Pinot Noir is the glory of 2012.  The Chardonnays can be impressive too, but some seem a little clumsy in comparison with the racy elegance, complex aromas and magnificent balance of the best Pinot Noirs. From a snatched conversation with the influential Champagne expert Michael Edwards during the tasting of vins clairs at Bollinger I learned that some growers in the Côte de Blancs are disappointed by the relative lack of finesse of their Chardonnay. In contrast, the few examples of Meunier I tasted were very good indeed, and benefitted from the slightly raised acidity in comparison with Pinot Noir.

Working a traditional press at Bollinger


The effect of organic and biodynamic viticulture

Louis Roederer farm around 22% of their own vineyards either organically or biodynamically. I had the rare opportunity to compare a number of wines from the same cru, from fruit grown using conventional viticulture and from that grown biodynamically. The results were sometimes startling. For example, biodynamic Pinot Noir from Avize revealed an extra dimension of complexity with acids that were both stronger, but also riper and more creamy. This, said Grégoire Fauconnet, is a typical profile of biodynamically-grown grapes from Roederer estates. In general, the biodynamic wines simply expressed more personality, specifically with better defined fruit characters and more ‘tension’.

The soil of the Cristal parcels is predominantly calcareous, and the vines, exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are at least twenty five years old. They form a wide selection from the best sites in Roederer’s own portfolio. Grégoire told me that experiments with biodynamic viticulture on less favoured sites does not reveal the same level of improvement. The evidence from Roederer estates is that biodynamic viticulture leads to better balanced, healthier plants, which are better able to produce fruit that optimises the potential and typicity of each site. If this is indeed so, it follows that the most striking results will always be achieved on the best sites, simply because they really do have the potential to produce the best fruit.

The effect of aging in cask versus tank

The most immediate differences between wines vinified and age in tank and those in casks was evident at Bollinger. Bollinger have a policy of using a mix of small barrels, bought second-hand from Burgundy producers, most recently from Chanson Père et Fils. The collection includes some casks made in Champagne over a century ago. None are younger than fifth fill. The cask samples were uniformly less fruity and more oxidative. Curiously, despite the age of the barrels, some showed marked toasty notes. More significantly, perhaps, the oxidative style of maturation seemed to beef up the structure of the wines with more evident acidity, differences shown clearly, for example, in two wines from Aÿ. The tank wine showed more vivid red fruit aromas, the cask wine, though less fruity, was richer and more powerful. But I soon learned that the reason for of some of these differences was not entirely be due to the method of maturation. The penny dropped when I noticed that a cask sample from Verzenay was deeper coloured than tank sample. This is the inverse to what I might normally have expected because the more intense lees contact in a barrel should absorb colour. The explanation is that Bollinger tend to put their better quality, more powerful wines in barrel and the lighter in tank.

At Roederer there are no small barrels. The fruit destined for Vintage wines and for Cristal is also vinified in a separate winery for that used for Brut Premier NV. This enables the Roederer team to adopt a different, less interventionist strategy, with, for example, no attempt to impose a malolactic fermentation on the wine. Their aim is to work with ripe fruit with naturally lower levels of malic acidity. Some wine from the Cristal plots goes into stainless steel, other batches into 100 hl casks. Not surprisingly, the wine aged in the large casks, does not readily display the oxidative style obtained by Bollinger’s small barrels, indeed one of the more reductive samples I tasted was from a wine from Vertus (Montferré), aged in casks, which also had a lemony, leesy  richness. A naturally rich vintage like 2012 receives less lees stirring than that from a lighter year and may be therefore more open to reduction, not least because with little or no malolactic fermentation, sulphiting must be carried out earlier. That said, reductive notes were evident in very few of the vins clairs I tasted. A more significant difference between tank and cask matured wines was that, some of those from tanks tended to display more crunchy, malic acidity, which was masked by the slightly leesy character of the wine aged in oak.

Casks containing reserve wine at Louis Roederer

Casks of reserve wine at Louis Roederer

The creation of a house-style

Pol Roger’s vins clairs have a distinct character. They combine a tight structure with a refined elegance. This is emphasised by a winemaking regime that begins with extended cold, or rather cool settling at around 17 to 18C, for up to fifteen days. The aim is to work with very clean juice and, says, Hubert de Billy, to produce wines with freshness and finesse. He cites as evidence the ‘rare finesse’ of the wines they made in the challenging circumstances of the 2003 heat-wave. The wines undergo a full malolactic conversion, which also enables Pol Roger to sulphite as little as possible. Indeed, “we are the house that sulphites least,” claims Hubert de Billy. In the past they have not, however, been afraid of chaptalising their musts (adding sugar at the time of fermentation to raise the alcohol strength). All the wines are vinified and aged in stainless steel.

Pol Roger’s house style seems to have served them well in producing 2012 Chardonnays of unusual precision and, indeed, finesse. One wine from le Mesnil was exceptionally fine with its piercing, ripe acidity. But the three examples of Meunier I tasted were also unusually refined, with a splendid wine from the unsung slopes of Baulnes sur Brie that married the typical spicy red fruits of the variety with deliciously fresh, but ripe acidity.

Hubert described in detail how the final blends at Pol Roger are agreed, all with the aim of maintaining that distinct house style, across the whole range that appeals to his customers. The same process is clearly evident at both Louis Roederer and Bollinger too.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to taste some many great wines from a truly remarkable vintage in Champagne and I look forward to watching the evolution of those wines that are declared as ’vintage’. At Pol Roger this is likely to be as much as 30 to 35% of the total production. But it is the way in which viticulture and winemaking are both used to craft something distinctive from each site, creating a typicity that is not just a matter of terroir but of house style, that has struck me most. And the skill of the winemakers and others in manipulating the rich palate of flavours available to create consistent blends is truly remarkable.

A Footnote

At Louis Roederer, Grégoire Fauconnet also treated me to a fascinating tasting of cask samples of their reserve wines, blended from the Cristal parcels: from 2011 to 2000. The chance to taste these remarkable wines gave me a privileged insight into the character of the most successful vintages of the last twelve years.

The wines are dominated by Pinot Noir and have been kept in large oak foudres.

2011   Rich, open nose. Lot of spicy structure – long.

2010   Shows much more oaky character, but very rich, powerful and spicy. Mineral finish.

2009   Much less oaky. Fresh nose, with hints of grapefruit, other citrus fruits and honey. Some buttery notes. Mineral finish.

2008   Vanilla and spice, but above all wonderful freshness and bags of potential. Superb balance.

2006   Fruit and oak well integrated. Rich and quite open.

2005  Again very rich and fine with well-integrated flavours, but superb supple acidity to balance the richness.

2004   The oak shows again. Very ripe, almost peachy, rich fruit leading to a fine, dry, mineral finish.

2002   Immensely complex, with an aroma of hazelnuts. Lively balance. Wonderful, lingering finish.

2000  Brioche notes for the first time. Seems young, with fresh, focused acidity.


Tradition, Innovation and Good Sense at Louis Roederer

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

The harvesters at Louis Roederer’s base in Ay were celebrating the completion of their work and the prospect of not having to take a shower in the icy downpours that hit the region today.  The pickers based at Verzenay were somewhat less fortunate: their job was not quite done.

Roederer’s technical team, headed by Cellar Master and Assistant Director of Champagne Louis Roederer, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon were in good heart, having come through as challenging a growing season as anyone could remember, and kindly answered my questions with a great deal of patient good humour.

Jean-Baptiste, who has an extraordinary ability to reel off sugar-level statistics for vintages back to 1947, is very happy indeed with the 2012 harvest. He believes that it may turn out to be better even than 1996 and 2002. Sugar levels this year averaged 11.7, but some Pinot Noir at Cumières reached 12.8. Acidity is very fresh. Above all the grapes taste wonderful – the surest measure of quality. Yields are modest, averaging around 7,500kg/ha for conventionally farmed vineyards and 6,500kg/ha for those in an organic or biodynamic regime – not that Roederer are looking for volume: Jean-Baptiste prefers the greater concentration of fruit flavour that only comes from lower yields. There were 15 treatments this year on biodynamic and organic plots at the Domaine de Champagne, with a total of 4kg/ha of Copper used (still comfortably below the biodynamic limit of 5kg).  Last year there were 7 treatments and a total of 1.6kg of Copper. Unlike some less experienced organic growers, Roederer’s vines yielded an acceptably-sized crop.

Roederer are unusual amongst the great houses of Champagne in having a considerable commitment to organic and biodynamic viticulture, around 22% of their holdings: 40 ha in biodynamic and 15 in organic.

The purpose of organic and biodynamic viticulture at Roederer is to improve fruit quality, but also to enable those who work the land to re-establish a closer link with it and thus a better understanding of it. ‘Know-how’ is one of Jean-Baptiste’s watchwords. By the same measure, the 15 ha hectares of vineyards that are worked by horse are not primarily to lessen soil compaction but ‘to rediscover how to do it and in the process learn much more about their site – where the soil is hard and where it’s soft, and so on. Even the horse will get to know it too!’ Jean-Baptiste wishes that all his tractor drivers could take at least a short course in ploughing by horse.

More detailed research on the effects of organic and biodynamic viticulture is planned and negotiations are taking place with possible university partners.

Jean-Baptiste and his team are clearly not rigid followers of Steineresque philosophy but believe that the upshot of research will be a new middle way between organic and biodynamic regimes in which the best of both are combined, using as much supporting empirical evidence as possible. So far the opinion of the team is that the organic and biodynamic plots produce better fruit, with both higher sugar and acidity. Jean-Baptiste suggests that a more open canopy brings better-aeration and that the vines absorb less Potassium. The biggest differences are between conventional viticulture and organic and biodynamic together. Biodynamics adds little empirical value to the benefits of organic viticulture, but it is an important tool in achieving a new kind of precision viticulture (conventional research in precision viticulture is also part of the programme).

Other important research has been on massal selection from plots of the best old Pinot Noir vines to develop strains that ripen later and are more resistant to leaf-roll and fan-leaf viruses. Massal selection techniques are also being used to develop new, less vigorous clones of rootstock 41B. Jean-Baptiste points out that most planting material comes from stock raised in warmer climates, especially Spain, but at Roederer they have the chance to breed from stock that is adapted to the calcareous soil and cool conditions of Champagne. Important work is also being carried out on local yeast strains. Another project is investigating canopy management. Experiments with Lyre training have not yielded encouraging results and so far, Jean-Baptiste feels that although high and wide does offer higher acid/lower pH for the same sugar levels as traditional cultivation, it also produces fruit with a greater tendency to reduction. For the foreseeable future Jean-Baptiste believes that traditional training methods will continue to meet Champagne’s needs best.

I learned a great deal in a short time, but was struck by how flexible the thinking Jean-Baptiste’s approach is, having first establish a commitment to continue to produce Champagne that is ‘al dente’, with fruit, freshness and even the expression of terror, otherwise a precious concept at Roederer, all in balance. Winemaking is typically reductive, but Jean-Baptiste is unafraid to allow pre-fermentation, hyper-oxidation of second pressing (taille) juice if is will ultimately render it more stable and whilst he goes to pains to work with fruit that is naturally unlikely to undergo a malo-lactic fermentation, it is no disaster if it happens. It is an approach that, to me, makes a great deal of sense.

These four days of visits were made possible by the very generous Champagne Trinity Bursary of the Institute of Masters of Wine. I look forward to my second visit in a few months’ time and would like, in particular, to thank Sylviane Lemaire of Pol Roger and her colleague in the UK Elizabeth Vaughan for making all the arrangements for my stay in Epernay; Mathieu Kauffmann and Christian Dennis at Bollinger, Hubert de Billy and Matthieu Blanc at Pol Roger; Violaine de Caffarelli, Laurent Panigai and Philippe Wilbrotte at the CIVC and Martine Lorson, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon and his team at Champagne Louis Roederer.

How the CIVC is helping keep Champagne growers ahead of the game.

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

The Plumecoq experimental vineyard was created sixty years ago by the CIVC – the professional and trade body that unites producers and growers in Champagne. Laurent Panigai, the CIVC’s head of viticulture kindly loaned me a pair of wellies and showed me round. Plumecoq is in a key position in Champagne, roughly at the spot where the Montagne de Reims, Marne Valley and Côte des Blancs sub-regions come together. It was established to try and discover a solution to leaf-roll and fan-leaf (court-noué) viruses. The answer was to produce high quality virus-free clones by clonal selection, a big task with the vine varieties of Champagne: Pinot Noir now has more registered clones than any other variety in the world and Chardonnay is in third spot.

A systematic approach that still characterises the CIVC’s research involved trails of three hundred plants from each clone, with vinification and regular tasting from vin clair stage through yearly monitoring of the wine as it aged on the lees.

There are over twenty Pinot Noir clones now in commercial use in Champagne, most of which are grafted, as is overwhelming the norm in the region onto rootstock 41B.  This choice of rootstock was criticised a little in the past because it encouraged late ripening; but with the effects of climate change, this is now clearly a quality much in its favour.

The next stage of experimental planting was to gather together as many varieties and sub-varieties that exist in the region as a reference collection to help preserve bio-diversity.

Clonal trials on disease resistance were then extended to an organically-managed plot.

Laurent has also trialled biodynamic-style tisanes, but argues that although they may have some effect, it is generally so slight to provide empirically reliable results. He is, however, convinced that those organic growers who are best equipped to deal with a year with affected, like this, with mildew and oidium are simply those who best know their land.

More signficantly, perhaps, trials on fungal diseases suggest that many common diseases are endemic but that most plants seem to have either immunity or an ability to co-exist with them. The real issue for viticulture, Laurent argues, is to try to understand what triggers an outbreak of disease such that one plant may succumb, while its neighbour remains healthy. It is, therefore, not so much a question of combating the disease itself, but in learning how a vine may live with the disease and what may ‘rupture the physiological balance of the plant’.

When I asked a question about use of Copper Laurent used the analogy of common salt to argue that no substance per se is a problem, it is only, he said, the level of the dose which is an issue. Monitoring of soil health is done with the assistance of microbiologists and entomologists specialising in the earth worm.

The CIVC is researching the effect of grassing between the rows. Weeds are not ‘mauvaises herbes’, Laurent insists. The results of trials at Plumecoq are fascinating. The effect of competition reduces yields (a mixed blessing in Champagne) – in a dry year by 10 to 15% and in a dry year by significantly more. The ‘grass’ consumes oxygen and nitrogen and the vine is less vigorous – and effect, which even in wet years serves to reduce the incidence of rot and mildew.

No representative of any Champagne house has yet responded more than dismissively when I have asked if climate change might necessitate a change to canopy management in the region, so I was fascinated to see that the CIVC have been granted permission to experiment with wider rows and higher canopies. A small change has a marked effect. As long as the overall size of canopy per hectare is maintained to allow the same capacity for photosynthesis, the sugar levels remain the same, but the acidity increases and the pH drops slightly. Why? It is as yet uncertain, but maybe because with better air circulation and therefore less trapped heat, the level of malic acid, which degrades with heat, is better maintained.

Many other experiments take place at Plumecoq including highly detailed work on the extent of biodiversity and precision viticulture, but one of the more surprising initiatives is a move, in association with the INRA, to develop new disease-resistant hybrid strains, which by back-crossing remain as close to the classic Champagne varieties as possible. The big question is how acceptable these might be to producers and consumers, and whether public attitudes to GM will soften enough to allow GM experiments to come up with alternative solutions to hybridisation that might have an even more significant effect in producing vines able to withstand the effects of climate change.

In addition to what takes place at Plumecoq and the other experimental vineyards owned by CIVC – one in the Aube at Essoyes and another being developed near Epernay on a site surrounded by woodland where there will be less chance of disease contamination from surrounding vineyards, the real work of research Laurent emphasises, is carried out through and by networks of growers working together and sharing results. This is the means by which research most effectively gets into the commercial bloodstream.

Today in Champagne – Pol Roger

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Pol Roger were my generous hosts today. I’ve never before visited the cellars, which gleam impressively with stainless steel. Wine-making is reductive and squeaky clean, only the first pressing is used and a full malo-lactic is done on all the wine. There’s not a barrel in sight. The quality of the wine and thus the blend for any of their special cuvées is only decided once the vins clairs are finished.

Brut Reserve is, of course, the house’s chief standard-bearer, an elegant blend, aged four years on lees, of a third each of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay. I love its focus and purity of fruit, with a very slightly spicy Meunier twist. ‘Pure’ Extra Brut, the same blend, with an extra year aging on lees is much more austere, but also more expressively – and spicily aromatic. The deliciously fruity 2004 Rosé, rich structured 2000 Vintage and sublime, elegant, but very richly complex Cuvée Winston Churchill 1999 all follow the same path of superb balance and great purity of fruit, but the real star for me – by a mile – is the 2002 Blanc de Blancs, which will be launched in the UK next month. What a wine!  It combines yet more richness, with a superb depth of almost exotic fruit, but overwhelmingly white and yellow peach. Soft and creamy, it has extraordinary length and not a trace of the chalky austerity of lesser Blanc de Blancs.

During a tour of some of the vineyards with Hubert de Billy, I was able to see a new Coquard PAI tilting press at work, which as the blurb says, enables a high grape volume to be press with a high pressing surface area. A cycle lasts around four hours. I think the model we saw was the 4000kg – which, I gather costs a cool €120,000.

I asked Hubert about overall production costs in Champagne. As a rough guide, he estimates €5-6 for a bottom of the range wine that includes second-pressing juice, to €20 for a top quality wine from Grand Cru grapes. The price of grapes is around €5.60/kg for Grand Cru quality – and a bottle requires 1.5kg.  Vineyard land rarely comes on the market but Grand Cru sites in Oger changed hands this summer for €1.6 to €1.8 million.

Beware cheap champagne!

What I learned today at Bollinger (in no particular order)

Monday, September 24th, 2012

The 2012 harvest is small but genuinely very good indeed. Sugar levels approach 11% potential, pH is low and acid fairly high. Mathieu Kauffmann, Bollinger’s Cellar Master believes that it will be on a par with 2002, though with slightly higher acidity, and that most houses will declare a vintage.  The flowering was drawn out from the first of June to the first of July. There is a lot of millerandage, but as I was able to taste for myself, the small seedless berries are fully ripe.

Organic growers had a very different experience – regular rains washed off Bordeaux mixture used to treat mildew and sulphur to treat oidium and they were left with little or no crop.

The juice with highest sugar and lowest pH is the cuvée (first pressing). The pH rises by as much as 0.2 with the second pressing as more elements such as Potassium are released into the juice.  This was apparent even on tasting the freshly pressed juice. The secret of freshness in the wine is therefore to use as much first press juice as possible. With this, Bollinger still feel able to do a full malo-lactic fermentation.

The new shaped bottle, released earlier this summer is based on an old bottle found by Mathieu in the cellars. It is modelled on a magnum. It has a wider body and narrower neck – with a 26mm ring. The bottling line had to be adapted to take it, but it offers not only an ‘aesthetic appeal’ but better aging capability with a much reduced cork size.

The secret of Bollinger lies in the magnums of special reserve wine bottled directly from the barrique, with a dosage of 6g/l sugar to give a very modest pressure of CO2 – ‘Quart de mousse’. The wine aged between 5 and 15 years represents 5 to 10% of the Special Cuvée.

A riddler can turn 50,000 bottles a day.

SO2  levels have been gradually reduced to around 50g/l  and Bollinger is probably the only Champagne house not to sulphite the final liqueur d’expedition. A full malo also makes a lower level of sulphur feasible.

The wine is better than ever. In particular, I was privileged to be able to taste the 2004 Grande Année ( a bottle disgorged in July) – which is yet to be released. Fleetingly reductive, the familiar brioche –like oxidative richness soon asserted itself. The fruit is markedly citrus (much more than the fabulous 2002) with lemon and grapefruit to the fore. Grapefruit is particularly marked in the mouth, with just a hint of pithy bitterness. It has lots of fruit, maybe even more in the mid palate than 2002, but is rather shorter. It will be all too easy to enjoy as soon as it is released.


The real price of champagne

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Talking on Sunday to Damien Chauvet of Champagne Henri Chauvet, a good producer at Rilly-la-Montagne, I was reminded why champagne can never be cheap.

A hectare of champagne vines, he said, typically costs around £1.3 million, but even in these straightened times, a hectare sold last week for £1.8 million. He estimates that it would take him fifty years to earn enough to afford such an outlay, and for that reason he prefers to rent land rather than buy.

A fixed interest ‘metayage’ agreement, say for 25 years assures the land owner something like a 20% share of the value of the grapes produced on it. With grapes at £5.20/kilo, a hectare can bring in, he says, an income of €1,000 per month. If you have ten hectares to rent, you’re in clover.

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Champagne Trinity Scloraship

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

I’m thrilled to announce this news from the Insitute of Masters of Wine website (20 April) :

A UK-based student in the Institute of Masters of Wine study programme is the recipient of the prestigious Champagne Trinity Scholarship for 2012. Helen Savage has been awarded the scholarship for her essay discussing the virtues of vintage in relation to the sales and marketing of Champagne. The Institute, with the support of the family-owned Champagne houses of Bollinger, Louis Roederer and Pol Roger, offers the scholarship annually to a first-year student participating in its international study programme. The scholarship consists of two consecutive trips to the Champagne region, one during vintage and another during the blending of the vins clairs in the spring. It provides a unique opportunity for a student to gain an insight into Champagne through visits to the three renowned, family-owned houses.

The Perils of an Early Spring

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

I have never seen the like: lush growth and flower trusses on vines as far north as the Loire Valley and Champagne – in April. But the old tradition of  not trusting the season until the days of the ‘ ice saints’ are passed holds good, even in such an unusually warm and early spring.

The ice saints, in case you don’t know, are  Mamertus, Pancras and Servatius. Their festivals fall on May 11, 12 and 13.

At dawn on May 4 the temperature at the southern end of Champagne’s prime Côte des Blancs fell to -2C°. Pierre and Sophie Larmandier who have vineyards in Vertus, Cramanat and Avize (and from them craft wonderful champagne) sent photographs of the frost damage – once proud shoots and flower trusses, now black and shrivelled. They reckon to have lost the crop from just over a hectare of vineyards in Vertus. Fortunately their plots in Cramant and Avize were unaffected, and continue to race ahead, with vegetative growth around three weeks ahead of normal.

Hail, associated with a violent storm that deposited 40mm of rain in the space of a couple of hours on April 25 did considerable damage to some vineyards in Bergerac. Elsewhere in southern France the exceptionally dry spring has some growers worrying already about vines stressed by lack of water.


Drappier Champagne

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Drappier is one of my favourite champagne houses. Everything they do is so precisely judged and of such high quality. I visited the cellars at Urville today on a bright, typical spring day in southern Champagne. It was great to see André (Papa Pinot) in great good spirits and Michel too – both hard at work, André in the office, Michel counting bottles in the cellar. Michel’s efficient and attentive assistant Samuel looked  after me and my clients with charm and kindness.

I was grateful for an opportunity to catch up on the range. Here are my notes.

Brut Nature Sans Soufre, 100% Pinot Noir – a blend of 2005/6 and 7 aged in stainless steel.Quite a deep copper; a full, but slightly cidery nose with great richness underneath. Clean and fresh on the palate, showing much less oxidative character and surprisingly rich fruit.

Quattuor IV, a blend of 25% each of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier, same blend of vintages as the previous wine. Dosed aroun 9 g/l. A remarkable Blance de Blancs – white peach and barely ripe pineapple fruit with spice and a citrus freshness in the mouth. Light and elegant.

Carte d’Or NV (currently also 2005/6/7). The benchmark wine of the house is as good as ever – fresh and toasty, with clean, bright, juicy, black fruit flavours (90% Pinot Noir).

Brut Rosé NV (100% Pinot Noir) – 100% saignée.  A blend of 2006/7/8. A vibrant but quite delicate pink, with a lovely creamy aroma of red fruits – strawberry and raspberry. The slightly higher dosage is immediately apparent, but this fruity, easy-drinking wine is very appealing.

Millésime Exception 2004 (60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay), aged partly in oak (pièces and more especially, foudres), then 5 years sur lattes.      A fine brioche nose with hints of red fruits and then a long, rich taste, slightly biscuity and markedly mineral. (£36.99 at Oddbins)

Grande Sendrée 2004 (55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay). A much richer, more complex wine – and also rather more oxidative in an attractively buttery way. Powerful, fine and long, it has great structure and a slightly phenolic finish. Already easy to enjoy, but well-equipped for the long haul. (£44.99 at Oddbins)

Carte d’Or, Vintage 1995 – from a magnum , disgorged in  May 2007. A very remarkably wine from a vintage too often overshadowed by 1996. It is very complex, with aromas of confit lemon and pineapple and then rich, soft and lingering in the mouth with considerable salty minerality, and an inherent elegance and simply – in short, it has sheer style and is still remarkably youthful. It’s such a shame I was driving and had to spit it out!